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caption: Rallies were planned worldwide for Earth Day 2020, similar to this Seattle climate strike Sept. 20, 2019.
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Rallies were planned worldwide for Earth Day 2020, similar to this Seattle climate strike Sept. 20, 2019.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

Earth Day moves to home and online, for now

The coronavirus pandemic derailed ambitious plans for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22. But organizers still hope to observe the day, and keep building their movement.

Denis Hayes organized the first Earth Day in 1970. He’s also President of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle. Hayes said this week’s 50th anniversary celebration was meant to include one billion people worldwide “to have the largest uprising of humanity to demand we take bold action on climate."

In Rome, Pope Francis was going to address crowds in St. Peter’s Square.

“We had soccer stadiums in Brazil, massive rallies in Kolkata, we hoped to have 750,000 people on the national mall in Washington, D.C,” Hayes said.

With those gatherings banned due to the coronavirus, Earth Day organizers are instead planning a day of action online, with 24 hours of streaming speeches — still including Pope Francis — interspersed with music performances.

Hayes said organizers will use the event to build their database of supporters “as we move into something driven by social media.”

Christie True, Director of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, said the pandemic caused the cancellation of many local Earth Day activities as well.

“Earth Day is a big day for our department every year, but this year was especially important because of the 50th anniversary,” she said. “We had a lot of activities planned to open up our facilities for people to tour and see what we do every day to protect the environment. But we also had a lot of volunteer events to plant trees and shrubs and restore natural areas.”

Instead King County is now encouraging people to celebrate Earth Day in their own backyards. True said they’re doing online workshops to show people how to create rain gardens to reduce storm runoff. They’ve also posted information on how to foster native plants and go after noxious weeds.

”This is a good time to think about using fewer herbicides and pesticides that get into our local streams and waterways,” she said. “You can explore your watershed. Think about where you live and what streams and rivers are nearby, and explore that by walking.”

King County parks and trails remain closed.

In Seattle, restoration projects have been postponed for the Washington Park Arboretum and Camp Long. Seattle Arts and Lectures had scheduled a talk by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert, who has chronicled the impact of climate change. Her talk will also now occur via livestream.

Denis Hayes said the planned rally in Washington D.C. has tentatively been postponed until October 24, just before the November 3 presidential election.

He said the real focus will be on urging people to vote.

“In late October and frankly from here on, the message from Earth Day is going to be, ‘vote Earth.'”

Hayes added that even the very first Earth Day was quickly subsumed by other urgent events.

“In 1970 after Earth Day, President Nixon rather swiftly started bombing Cambodia and a few days later the National Guard shot some students at Kent State,” he said. “And the environment went from being on page one to being buried in the newspapers for the next few months.”

But he said environmentalists organized to oust Congressional incumbents that fall. After that election, Congress passed landmark environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act, and Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think the lesson from that is, you can have all the rallies you want, you can do all these demonstrations and marches, but unless you’re having electoral impact you’re not going to bring about sweeping change,” Hayes said.

Hayes said he doesn’t necessarily expect the sudden changes brought on by the pandemic to have a lasting impact on the environment once restrictions are lifted — except that there might be more telecommuting. But he hopes the response will create new respect for international cooperation.

“Perhaps the most important thing for the environment that might come out of Covid-19 is the recognition that some problems are absolutely global,” he said.